What Is Fluency and Why Is it Important?
Most people are familiar with the definition of fluency, sometimes called automaticity, when it comes to spoken language. For example, someone may be considered fluent in a second language if they can speak, read, and write it comfortably.
A primary goal of elementary education is to help children develop fluent reading skills. Strong literacy skills are important for avoiding poverty, building successful relationships, and reducing inequality in our society, but to become literate, students must learn to become fluent readers. So, when it comes to reading, what exactly does it mean to be fluent, and how can educators help boost students' reading fluency?
What Is Fluency in Reading?
Proficient readers and writers possess automatic word-recognition skills and advanced comprehension and composition skills. Oral reading fluency describes a student's ability to read aloud based on three primary characteristics:
- Accuracy—The student correctly identifies and pronounces words as they come across them in the text
- Speed—The student reads sentences at a rate of speech quickly enough to maintain comprehension of what is being read. In contrast, students with low oral reading fluency may need to slowly sound out each individual word, which can cause them to lose the meaning of the sentence.
- Expression—The student recognizes proper phrasing of questions, statements, and other types of expression as they read, and they read aloud with proper expression including phrasing and intonation
What differentiates fluent and non-fluent readers is their ability to read in a manner that satisfies these elements of fluency automatically. Letter sounds, phonics rules, and phonological awareness skills like blending and segmenting words are automatic behaviors that do not require intentional consideration as texts are read. In contrast, non-fluent readers or English Language Learners may need to carefully consider each word and sound until they become fluent in reading.
Why Does Fluency Matter?
Fluency describes a set of foundational skills that are essential to developing literacy. In short, fluency makes reading—and, as a result, learning—easier. Students fluent in reading will struggle less with difficult words and will more easily comprehend complex topics. Students struggling with reading fluency might find their inadequate language skills make reading feel difficult and taxing, making them less motivated to learn.
How Does Reading Fluency Relate to Comprehension?
Fluency and reading comprehension skill development might seem like different types of language skills, but research shows they're actually closely related. When students are fluent in reading, they automatically understand which words they're reading in the text. For example, you're probably not sounding out each word in this article; instead, you can read most words presented here automatically. Fluency allows readers to focus more on the meaning of the words than the actual words themselves.
How To Tell if a Student Struggles with Fluency
Since the link between fluency, reading comprehension, and literacy is so well established, educators may be interested to know how to identify students struggling with reading fluency. Generally, students struggling with fluency will display deficits in one or more of the three primary elements of fluency—accuracy, speed, and expression.
For example, students struggling with accurate reading may incorrectly pronounce words often. Students may read aloud slowly or awkwardly. They may lose their place in the text frequently and struggle to reiterate what was read after finishing a sentence or a paragraph. When silent reading, students struggling with fluency may move their mouth (a practice called subvocalizing). Teachers might also notice students read without proper intonation, either reading in a monotone or missing the tone of questions or statements.
Struggling with fluency is frustrating, and teachers may notice students being angry or unwilling to read if they're struggling with fluency. Dedicated vocabulary instruction and/or explicit instruction in decoding and blending can help students achieve grade-level reading proficiency while improving the reading experience for children.
How To Improve Fluency In and Out of the Classroom
Building fluency takes practice, but it's possible for every child, even children with learning disabilities. The key to mastering English fluency is to read often, in and out of the classroom. Here are a few practical tips for educators and parents hoping to improve fluency development and help children become confident readers.
Read Aloud to One Another
Building fluency requires active participation from both children and adults. Reading aloud to children struggling with fluency won't help them learn to recognize the words themselves, and forcing non-fluent readers to read silently won't organically improve comprehension or reading rate.
Instead, read aloud to one another. As the adult slowly reads, the child can trace over the words with a finger. At the end of each page, have the child read aloud the page to the adult. As the child reads, the adult should gently correct incorrect intonation or pronounciation.
Expression, sometimes called prosody, is a key indicator of comprehension. If children read aloud with improper expression, like not raising the tone of their voice to indicate a question, they're likely not understanding the sentence they're reading as a whole.
Make storytime fun by reading with over exaggerated expression. Encourage hand movements, big facial expressions, and dramatic tone of voice to help children comprehend the text. You can also choose an emotion before reading and ask students to read aloud while expressing that emotion.
Read the Same Stories Repeatedly
According to the National Reading Panel, repeated oral reading is the best way to improve fluency. Some educators are wary of allowing students to re-read texts, since students might memorize the words; however, even if students do memorize the words, re-reading helps them gain confidence in reading and focus greater attention on comprehension and expression.
Read Rhyming or Rhythmic Books
Rhyming and rhythmic books, like Dr. Seuss books, have a predictable canon. This can help children become fluent by drawing their attention more keenly to the natural phrases and expressions in the text. As they hear the rhythm, they deepen their understanding of intonation and the relationships between sounds.
For Dedicated Fluency Support, Try a Voyager Sopris Learning Literacy Program
It's never too late to focus on fluency. For students in grades 5–12, Voyager Sopris Learning's LANGUAGE! Live® intervention provides an effective, innovative, and flexible framework to developing essential literacy skills and catching students up to the appropriate grade level in reading. For younger learners, Voyager Passport® was designed to support development of reading, language, and writing skills through assessments, and explicit, comprehensive lessons.
Fluency matters in more than just the classroom. To ensure children get the literacy support they need to succeed, partner with Voyager Sopris Learning®.